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Name: ____________________ # ____ Period: ____

Date: _______________

Directions: As you read the essay, Americas First Teenagers: Youth in the fifties, by Barbara Diggs, complete
the t-chart. Identify details from the article that characterized life for teens in the 1950s in the column labeled
1950s. Then, use your personal experiences and knowledge to list details about teenagers today in the column
titled Today. Be sure to list a minimum of five (5) details in each column.

Today

1950s

An Excerpt from Americas First Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties


Barbara Diggs

The term teenager was scarcely heard at the start of the 1950s, but by the
decades end, the word rolled off every American tongue with ease. The teens of the
50s were the first teen-aged youths to stand out as a distinct group with interests,
fashions, musical tastes and economic power of their own. Their rise to prominence
was largely because, unlike the youth of previous generations, the youngsters of the
1950s were unencumbered by responsibilities brought by world war and economic
depression. In the 1950s, America was as prosperous as it ever had been; the morale of
the white middle-class was high, and parents, smilingly indulgent. For the first time,
young people had both the money and the freedom to do what every generation of teens
since has expected as its right: have fun.
And fun, they had.

Name: ____________________ # ____ Period: ____

Date: _______________

The average white middle-class teen in the 1950s often engaged in the type of
wholesome activities for which they are so well remembered. They hung out with their
friends at malt shops, necked at drive-in movies, and gathered around the television
with their families only one set per household in those days to watch respectable
programs such as I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. Teenage boys from
slick-haired greasers to cardigan-wearing preppies spent ample time salivating
over the increasingly sleek and sporty cars that were being churned out each year.
Girls swooned over pin-ups of teen idols like Troy Donahue and Fabian, and
consulted newly inaugurated teen magazines for advice on dating or fashion.
Perhaps if the teens of the 50s had gone no further with their exploration of
fun, perhaps the world would be a different place. But Americas first teenagers
clearly wanted more than wholesome fun. And when rock n rollers such as Chuck
Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley burst onto the scene, teens were ready. They
latched onto rock n rolls reckless, thrilling beat and refused to let go. With the
advent of rock n roll, and a spate of movies featuring disaffected teens (most notably
being James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause), America got its first taste of teenage
rebellion.
Most parents were appalled. Rock n roll, with its powerful beat, gyrating
singers, and suggestive lyrics, was considered to be utterly unsuitable for children.
The fact that such music also had strong roots in the African-American blues and
gospel traditions made it all the worse. It was denounced by conservatives as jungle
music or Satans music which made the teenagers, in true teenage form, crave it
all the more. Record producers were happy to oblige them. Teens flocked the record
stores, dropped millions of dimes in the jukebox, and joyfully jitterbugged away in
thousands of high school gyms across the nation. And as the song goes, rock n roll
was here to stay.
Naturally, life in the 50s wasnt one sock hop after another. Teens spent most
of their time in school, and were constantly pressured to conform to societys
extremely conservative standards. One such method of pressure was the frequent
showing of mental hygiene films in schools. These 15-minute films (with titles such
as, Keep off the Grass, Are You Popular? and Safety or Slaughter) attempted to
steer or frighten young people away from drugs, [relations with the opposite
gender,] slouching, speeding, or anything that might render them socially unpopular.
The consequences for teens that veered from the norm were severe: an unwed
pregnant teen would quickly find herself a pariah; homosexuality could result in a jail
sentence; an interracial relationship would practically guarantee ostracism from
everyone, including your own family.
But, overall, Happy Days wasnt outrageously far off the mark. Few teens
stepped far beyond their social boundaries, and life for a white middle-class teen was
good fun.
The average black teen, although painfully aware and often brutally reminded
of the pervasive racism in America, had their own happy days. Like their white
counterparts, black teenagers of the 50s, laughed with their friends, wore saddle
shoes, penny loafers and swing skirts, listened to 45s, and watched wholesome
sitcoms with their families. They danced at parties, took home economics or shop
in school, and a small percentage applied and went to college.
Rock and roll was well-liked among black teens, but many teens, especially those in
big cities, often preferred the smooth, harmonious sounds of black doo-wop groups
such as the Clovers, the Platters or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Doo-wop was a
recent permutation of rhythm and blues, a form of music that originated in the black

Name: ____________________ # ____ Period: ____

Date: _______________

community and had been long enjoyed by parents and kids alike. However, doo-wop
in particular was a teenage thing, as it began with groups of young inner-city black
males gathering on street corners or on front porches to make up songs and sing a
cappella for their friends.
Although white and black teens shared many similarities in pastimes, fashions
and musical taste, the two situations were not separate but equal. The 50s are
often characterized as an age of youthful innocence, but black teenagers were all too
aware of their vulnerability to the ugliness in the world. Fourteen year-old Emmett Till
was brutally murdered and mutilated in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.
Nine courageous teenagers endured taunts, violent threats and gobs of spit, for daring
to be the first blacks to integrate an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Popular dance programs, such as American Bandstand and the Milt Grant Show,
would not, at least initially, allow black and white teens to dance in the same studio.
Black teenagers could not help but be aware that white America considered them
vastly inferior, and that straying over racial boundaries could have humiliating
and/or devastating consequences. Nevertheless, a flutter of rebellion was growing in
the hearts of many black teens. And in the sixties, this rebellion would converge with
the discontent of white middle-class teens, to explode into a revolution that would
alter the course of Americas history.
Diggs, Barbara. "America's First Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties." America's First
Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2012

RESPOND TO THE RE ADIN G


Directions: Answer the following prompt in a complete paragraph. Cite facts, examples, and/or details from the essay,
"America's First Teenagers: Youth in the Fifties," and the t-chart in your response.

How was life for teenagers in the 1950s compared to today?


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